Shibo Ma: Developing the next generation of food

Food is essential for life and healthy, sustainably produced food is essential to building a healthy society, says Shibo Ma (China), a first-year Master of Food Science student at the University of Melbourne.

“That strengthens my resolve to try my best to contribute to the world,” he says.

Shibo realised the importance of food science during his undergraduate studies at Northeast Agricultural University in Harbin, China, where he earned a Bachelor of Dairy Engineering.

“It is a comprehensive and fundamental science that allows us to provide healthy food for as many people as possible, with the help of agricultural science,” he says.

“That makes me feel a responsibility to make the world healthier for everyone.”

The Master of Food Science combines a strong core in food chemistry, processing, sensory science, safety and microbiology with the opportunity to complete a research project that can lead to a PhD. Students can choose from a range of electives to build skills and knowledge in particular areas of food production, food policy and business management.

Shibo Ma
Shibo Ma.

The University of Melbourne has particularly strong expertise in food safety, food policy. analyses to understand the effects of foods on health, and functional foods, which have positive effects on health beyond nutrition, such as antioxidants and probiotics.

Students also have opportunities to gain essential career skills in communication, teamwork and project management.

Shibo says the course, his lecturers and his classmates have helped him to develop skills and confidence in his abilities.

One of his standout experiences in the course was showing what he had learned in a presentation in his Food Processing subject.

“This helped me find my confidence,” he says.

“I graduated from my bachelors degree with a very deep understanding of dairy product processing, including non-fermented milk products and fermented dairy products. That presentation earned my friends’ respect for my knowledge in that area, and built my confidence and presentation ability.”

Meanwhile, he’s benefitted from the support of his teachers. Shibo says when he had difficulty in a subject and was beginning to doubt himself, the coordinator gave him personal feedback to help him improve his grades, his academic ability and his confidence.

“That took me past my doubts and led me to work hard to improve myself.”

He’s also been inspired by one of his food safety lecturers, Dr Senaka Ranadheera.

“Senaka’s teaching style and fast responses to my emails makes my study smoother,” Shibo says.

“The content of the food safety subject is hard, but his teaching style and presentation make it easy to understand. His patience for my questions shows how willing he is to support his students.”

Dr Ranadheera’s main research interest is food processing and preservation, particularly fermentation. As it’s also been an area of interest for Shibo throughout his studies, it is not surprising he’s looking forward to using the University’s advanced fermentation technology later in his degree.

Another technology highlight for Shibo has been the sensory science laboratory. Here, University researchers apply biometric sensors and machine learning to understand people’s unconscious reactions to food.

“Sensory testing, where panellists taste food and give feedback, is very important for developing a product because it helps producers and scientists to create foods consumers will enjoy and purchase,” he says.

“The design of the sensory lab can prevent the biases of the panellists from affecting the results, which is one of the most important challenges in sensory testing.

Sensory lab
The sensory lab allows researchers to ask participants to describe their responses to foods, and comapre these against thermal and facial recognition readings to understand non-conscious responses to foods.

“Tests can also tell if products using new elements, such as healthier ingredients or sustainable processing methods, could replace old products with minimal effect on consumers’ sensory responses, maintaining profits.”

This is just one of the subtle ways that food science can build a healthier society. The importance and value of developing sustainable food systems that can deliver healthy food to everyone is something Shibo is truly passionate about.

“The food industry can appear basic, but it is essential for human life and allows us to apply a great deal of advanced science and technology,” he says.

“This allows us to develop and commercialise more healthy foods and diets to help people extend their lives and their wellness throughout life.

“I also think it’s important to protect our environmental health. One of my working goals is to ensure the food industry is sustainable to try to save our environment from pollution.”

Shibo has also developed goals that inspire him to achieve success in his career. He is confident he will meet them.

“The scientists who work in the industry constantly develop new products to meet people's requirements,” he says.

“The possibilities are unlimited, and companies need more fresh ideas to attract the consumer. So, I have confidence in my career prospects.”

Banner image: The sensory laboratory at the University of Melbourne, Parkville campus, combines direct user input with biometric sensors.